On December 28th, 2010 the jazz community lost a dear friend and innovator. Dr. William Edward Taylor, Jr, known affectionately as "Billy," died of heart failure at his Riverdale home in the Bronx at the age of 89.
For well over six decades Dr. Taylor was the ambassador to jazz music being played in the inner cities across with country with a program he created called Jazzmobile. In 1965 his goal was to provide free jazz concerts with top notch artists to perform in black neighborhoods at a time when jazz clubs were closing due the fading popularity of rock and soul music which dominated the radio at the time. With his vision, Dr. Taylor allowed these concerts to be a means to keep jazz musicians employed as well as introduce the music to the peoples.
Last week Lincoln Center presented as part of their outdoor summer programming, "Out of Doors" series; "3 Pianos: A Birthday Tribute" in conjunction with Jazzmobile, Inc at Damrosch Park Bandshell. Three pianos featured three generations of piano players that played and dedicated their entire set to the legacy of Dr. Billy Taylor featuring Norman Simmons, Eric Reed, and Christian Sands. Dr. Barry Harris was supposed to partake in the evening's festivities but due to health issues, he couldn't be there.
The first part of the tribute had the pianists Christian Sands and Eric Reed play three solo compositions of Dr. Taylor. Norman Simmons played with the last trio of Dr. Taylor that included Winard Harper on drums and Chip Jackson on bass. For the second part of the program all three pianists including special guest pianist Aaron Diehl played in what would be hailed as a musical kaleidoscope of three generations of pianists giving their talents and love to Dr. Billy Taylor.
The evening's musical director was trumpeter Cecil Bridgewater who also served as the show's emcee. In addition to drummer Winard Harper and Chip Jackson on bass, alto saxophonist Tia Fuller, trombonist Craig Harris, and vocalist Melba Joyce were part of the stellar rhythm section.
Dr. Taylor was born on July 24th, 1921 in Greenville, North Carolina to a middle-class family, his father was a dentist and his mother was teacher. They stressed education and a strong work ethic to he and his younger brother and sister. Billy developed a passion for music when he began studying piano at age seven. He studied music at Virginia State College earning his B.S and eventually earning a Ph.D in Music Education from the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
His signature phrase was "Jazz is America's classical music," making the world take this art-form seriously.
He was a well-respected pianist playing with such icons like Ben Webster, Art Tatum, Duke Ellington, and Ramsey Lewis. But Dr. Taylor's legacy will always be remembered for his song "I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free," a song Dr. Martin Luther King would ask him to play many times throughout the 1960's during the Civil Rights Movement. Vocalist Nina Simone would make this one of her signature records.
Many of Dr. Taylor's friends and family came out to Lincoln Center to support and celebrate his vision of Jazzmobile, love for jazz, and life as an endless educator and ambassador to the music.
Jazzmobile still needs your financial support during these lean and hard economic times. To make a donation or to find out upcoming Jazzmobile events, please visit them on the web at jazzmobile.org. Or, make checks payable to:
154 West 127th Street
Harlem, New York 10027